The best books with fictional female astronomers

Paul Murdin Author Of The Secret Lives of Planets: Order, Chaos, and Uniqueness in the Solar System
By Paul Murdin

Who am I?

Astronomy teaches us that our bodies are quite literally star stuff, chemical elements made inside exploding stars. For much of my life, I studied and researched astronomy in universities, and in observatories on remote and beautiful mountain tops and in space.  I explored the cosmos for its own sake, but I came to realise also that we are literally and metaphorically a part of the Universe, not apart from it. Just as the science of astronomy has done for me, these novels put humanity against the same backdrop: cosmic lives seen through women’s eyes. 

I wrote...

The Secret Lives of Planets: Order, Chaos, and Uniqueness in the Solar System

By Paul Murdin,

Book cover of The Secret Lives of Planets: Order, Chaos, and Uniqueness in the Solar System

What is my book about?

The subtitle of my book is Order, Chaos and Uniqueness in the Solar System.  It contrasts the conventional idea that the planets are locked into a perfect, repetitive, interlocking mechanical machine like a watch with the increasing realisation by astronomers of the strong role that chance and chaos have played in the way planets develop.  

I wrote the book with the thought in mind that the evolution of a planet was akin to someone’s life – a sequence of chance events linked by the progression that, in retrospect, makes the arc of an individual’s biography.  In the solar system, the major chance event was an orbital interference of Jupiter and Saturn.  It threw asteroids all around the solar system, smashing into the Earth and creating our satellite, scarring rocky worlds like Mercury and the Moon with craters, and ejecting countless asteroids, even planets, into the cold, dark depths of interstellar space.  That was a fate that our Earth evidently avoided, but only by chance.     

The books I picked & why

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By Carl Sagan,

Book cover of Contact

Why this book?

The novel is about Ellie Arroway, a radio astronomer (played by Jody Foster in the movie of the book), who finds radio signals from extraterrestrial intelligence. They contain instructions to make a vehicle, by which she travels through wormholes to understand the nature of the Universe. The author, planetologist Carl Sagan, based Arroway on Jill Tarter, director of the real-life institute to Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). “Carl Sagan wrote a book about a woman who does what I do, not about me,” explained Tarter. “He did his homework, and thus included many of the ‘character-building’ experiences that are common to women scientists studying and working in a male-dominated profession, so [she] seems very familiar to me.” Sagan links Arroway’s/Tarter’s story with the way that ETs might make themselves known to us, and what we might learn from them. 

Variable Stars

By Christina Koning,

Book cover of Variable Stars

Why this book?

Caroline Herschel was the sister of William Herschel, a church organist and piano tutor, latterly the discoverer of the planet Uranus, a mapper of the skies, and an astronomer at the court of King George III. At first, she devoted herself to her brother, acting as his housekeeper, musical accompanist, and PA in Bath and then as his scientific assistant in Slough, near Windsor Castle. She submerged her own volition to his. But gradually she found her own life in astronomy, and discovered 8 comets, pooh-poohed as small by the King but much appreciated by Queen Charlotte and her ladies. She became known internationally in her own right. She lived to a considerable old age in Hannover, where she was born. The book is a fictionalised but real-life story that echoes between the eighteenth century and our own time.

The Falling Sky

By Pippa Goldschmidt,

Book cover of The Falling Sky

Why this book?

Scottish astronomer and novelist Pippa Goldschmidt mixes astronomy and fiction in her novel. The book provides insight into the way that astronomy is carried out now in modern, remote, mountain-top observatories and in space (I can vouch for its verisimilitude). Jeanette is a young, lonely, junior researcher working in a university department dominated by male egos and incompetents. She puts academic politics and unsatisfactory affairs aside and travels to a mountain-top observatory in Chile for her research, making an unexpected discovery that throws her into conflict with her colleagues. Like her love life, her scientific life spirals out of her control: the Universe is ordered by science but her life and the lives of scientists are not.

Two on a Tower

By Thomas Hardy,

Book cover of Two on a Tower

Why this book?

In this Wessex novel by Thomas Hardy, Lady Constantine’s explorer-husband has been missing for years when she offers patronage to the Byronic astronomer, Swithin St. Cleeve, letting him use a tower on her estate as an observatory. He shows her the stars through his telescope, passionately explaining what lies behind the astronomical images. Presuming her husband dead, she secretly marries St Cleeve, but a complicated legacy intrudes, and it transpires that her husband has been living with an African princess before blowing his head off. Suicide, bigamy, a lost legacy, an illegitimate child, the plot lines (there are many more than I have mentioned!) are resolved by numerous and dramatic deaths.  This scandalous romance is melodramatically plotted, but gains a certain sublime power as an “emotional history of two infinitesimal lives against the stupendous background of the stellar universe".

Leader of the Band

By Fay Weldon,

Book cover of Leader of the Band

Why this book?

Fay Weldon’s novels are plotted like my book Secret Lives of Planets: a sequence of chance and disconnected events which nevertheless form a biography. In this novel, Sandra Harris, known to her TV fans as "Starlady Sandra”, an astronomer (famous for her discovery of the new planet Athena), and a “professional searcher after truth”, leaves her inadequate husband and runs off with her jazz-playing lover to the south of France. She is pursued by her husband, her lover’s wife, and paparazzi. “She’s always seeing things“, her friends say: new planets, her Nazi war-criminal eugenicist father, her insane mother, other people. Human lives are a farce, like the accidental events of cosmology. 

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